Football-player-turned-hedge-fund manager Mitch Marrow says he’s “investigative” by nature. So when the travel and long hours associated with his job at New York’s Brahman Capital required him to find a kennel for his dogs, he undertook the same due diligence he would to evaluate a potential investment.
What he found disturbed him so much that he decided the only way to ensure his dogs—and those of other busy New Yorkers—got proper care was to care for them himself. And that’s how The Spot Experience, a dog daycare and services provider, was born. FINalternatives Senior Reporter Mary Campbell spoke with Marrow recently about his new canine career.
Tell me something about your own background, particularly how you came to the hedge fund business.
I was drafted by the National Football League's Carolina Panthers out of college. Injury—multiple back surgeries—made my career a little shorter than I would have liked. I had always worked for fellow alumni from University of Pennsylvania, and there’s a lot of Wharton School of Business alumni in the city in the hedge fund world. I always interned in the off season, realizing that football was not going to be a forever job, and so I got in at the bottom basically and worked my way up.
I ended up becoming the head of a large desk that traded all sorts of different strategies, but for the last five or six years of my hedge fund career, we were really a very management-focused, value-oriented fund. We would go out and really study and spend time with managements and follow management at different companies, and that turned out to be a very successful strategy. I ran both international trading and U.S. trading for the fund, and then I ended up getting pretty heavily involved in the risk management side of things there, where I would help to hedge the portfolio.
So your job had you travelling a lot and leaving your dogs at home?
Traveling being such a part of my life and working such crazy hours, whether I was in New York or traveling, I just couldn’t stand leaving my dogs in the apartment and having these very transient dog walkers—maybe they would come, you’d hope that if they did come they would actually take the dog for a real walk. I was dying to find a place like Spot, like the place that I’ve opened, that provides a really, really high-quality level of care with really highly trained people: A place where I knew my dog was safe, and in a stress-free environment and could be social with other dogs but in a very responsible atmosphere.
I’m a very investigative person, so just like working in the hedge fund world, I was going to any sort of business or purveyor that I was interested in using to do my due diligence. I was really taken aback at just how horrible the conditions were in these places and could not find one single place that had trained staff. It was a very fragmented business, a lot of Mom and Pop operations, not really well-capitalized with no real money spent on training personnel and hiring the right personnel. I understand where that comes from, because when you’re trying to squeeze out a living, it’s hard to make that investment when you don’t see the immediate return. But so many people that I knew work these tough hours and own pets, I just said, "Gee, there’s got to be a solution to this." We’re willing to spend lots of money on care if it was provided. And that’s how the idea for Spot really came to be.
What were some of the problems with the places you saw?
A common trait at these places is a big glass window, so you can see all the dogs. There’ll be 40 or 50 dogs stuffed into a room with maybe one person overseeing them. It’s a marketing technique—you’ll walk by, you’ll see lots of cute dogs in the window and you’ll want to pop in and see what it’s about. And every time someone comes in, in that kind of environment, the dogs erupt; it’s very, very stressful. It would be like if they took a classroom full of kids and put a huge window for everybody to come examine them while they were trying to learn; it was all dogs fighting and aggressive behavior.
Another thing that blew my mind was it seemed like a common practice of limiting the amount of water that dogs would be given so that they don’t urinate as much. I have a St. Bernard, and if he’s not given water regularly, he dies.
And dogs, unfortunately, can’t really speak up for themselves or explain, so you really had to dig in and look past the surface to see some of these things. The main issue that I saw was that the people that were overseeing the dogs and making sure that they were interacting correctly and not fighting had no training; it was basically hiring somebody for minimum wage and putting them in a room with 40 or 50 dogs and hoping that they could control them. So that was the first thing we did with Spot: We built a platform where we have everybody, no matter where you work within the company, you go through at least 80 hours of intensive training. And we hire people who have just graduated from veterinary technical college, people who are certified animal behaviorists. And we do our own certification, and we have four handlers in the dog room at all times at every facility.
How many dogs are in any one room at any one time?
We use a ratio of about 20 square feet per dog and we try to keep a ratio of about one handler to every 10 to 15 dogs. It depends a lot on the size of the dogs, too—the bigger dogs require an extra handler in there, but the truth is our handlers are so well-trained that they take on the alpha role in that room. The whole thing about dogs is, when they’re in a pack, they try to figure out where they stand within that pack; the alpha’s at the top and then they have these rungs of leadership going down. Our handlers all understand how to become that alpha in the room, so they really are looked at as the controlling force. We have a "bark-free" policy; of course, the dogs do bark occasionally, but we have that standard because we really aim for no barking at all throughout the day. When the dogs are calm and they’re content, they’re not barking.
Another thing that we do that’s pretty unique is all of our handlers are equipped to do basic training and we reinforce all sorts of really good behavior. So younger dogs who board with us or daycare with us, they’re actually getting the basic training while they’re there. They’re working on the house-breaking and they’re not biting and they’re not chewing and all the different things—the "sit," the "stay," those basic commands, so it’s sort of killing two birds with one stone. And it’s a really wonderful thing to see—the dogs are just so calm and so happy, it’s just such a different atmosphere from what I saw out there a couple of years back.
I’ve read that dogs like to know what’s expected of them, that it's very important for them, and that if you make it clear exactly what you want from them they’re happy to give it.
That’s 100% right. It’s important not to have these sort of moving targets of what’s okay and what’s not. Dogs want to please us so badly and if you give them an opportunity and you give them some structure, they take to it and they enjoy their time so much more.
They also need to have some time to unwind and just have fun—we have a big outdoor area and our own private dog park at our 72nd Street facility. Once they step outside, it’s their time to really let loose, just get their energy out and play in a lot looser environment. We pair them up with other dogs that fit their same body type and personality and it’s really cool to see.
And you have two dogs? One is a St. Bernard and the other is...
It’s a bull mastiff. Two of the most gigantic dogs going. Reggie is my St. Bernard and Hank (the Tank), he’s a 180-pound bull mastiff. Reg is bigger than that—Reg is 220 pounds.
Do they go to daycare?
Yeah, they come into the city with me and go into the daycare. Obviously, I don’t board them or anything, because I take them home with me, but it’s a treat for them. I now live in Westchester, just outside the city, because I have a two-year-old and my wife is about to have our second child and these two gargantuan dogs. My wife and I both say our dogs got so much more exercise and so much more socialization time when they were in the city.
How do the two careers—hedge fund manager and dog care entrepreneur—compare?
Oh, much, much more money in dog services. [Laughs.] I hope so, at some point. It’s totally different. This is totally an entrepreneurial undertaking. We’ve hired over 150 employees, expanded from one location to six, going on seven, and we’re partnered with Continental Airlines: We do their hub at Newark International Airport—and now they’re talking about opening up hubs all throughout the nation where we’d be running their facilities, daycares right on the airport premises. This is really going at light speed. There are no real barriers. There’s a $60 billion dog industry out there that seems to increase every year, no matter what the economy does.
But at the same time, it’s not just about the business success—it’s also about setting out to create something that I didn’t feel existed and meeting a need. And there’s a good feeling about employing lots of hourly-wage employees and having them work their way up the ladder and giving them a real opportunity. We’re really building and creating a business here, whereas in the hedge fund space we were taking money and looking to increase that pile of money. I think that there’s a much more fulfilling feeling for me really being hands on and involved. I’ll clean the bathroom if it’s dirty at one of the locations and sometimes I’ll be in a meeting with the owner of a large group of residential buildings that we want to cut a deal with and I think the contrast between what you can do on a given week or day is amazing.
Besides the deal with Continental, do you have plans to expand beyond New York City?
We have a partnership that will take us into at least four new locations in Connecticut and then we’re looking at a large deal in Boston, Mass. So, I think in 2012 we’ll look to expand into the Tri-State area for sure and then Boston, and then by late 2012 or early 2013 we should be in some other major cities like Miami, San Francisco, Washington, D.C. We’re looking at a couple of other markets as well but we certainly have our sights on not sitting tight just in New York.